Two-Strokes of Salt
In October 2010, Steve Davis (my shop Service manager) and I took a trip to Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for a few days. We went there to see first hand, how cars set Land Speed Records at Bonneville and try to reduce the learning curve for what we hoped would be our own attempt in 2011. The first time you see the snow white sea of salt at Bonneville Salt Flats, you know you are at a place like no where else on earth! When you get out onto the salt it makes a Midwesterner like me feel like you are on a huge frozen lake. I even found myself calling it “ice” every now and then.
Since many people are unfamiliar with the history surrounding Bonneville Slat Flats, let me give you a little history on it. Bonneville is known around the world as the “fastest place on earth”. It is a unique place where mile after mile of a thin ribbon of salt provide a perfect surface to run vehicles at very high speeds. The salt is wet and actually cools the vehicle’s tires as you drive. Tires getting too hot and exploding are never a good thing at high speeds. Bonneville is located right next to the Nevada boarder and about one hundred miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah. Early maps show this area as “impassable” and all avoided it. But then in the mid thirties a guy named Ab Jenkins, who lived in the Salt Lake City area, decided to take a car out there and do some playing. Jenkins soon discovered there was a ten mile plus piece of straight salt where you could really go fast…faster than anywhere else he had ever heard of or seen before. In the thirties speed records in the United States where set on beaches, in places like Daytona Beach, Florida for example. The beaches provided a flat surface and the sand cooled the tires too. But one mistake and the tires would “dig” into the sand and cause terrible accidents, which many times involved bystanders who were also close to the action. Jenkins felt this salt surface was the perfect answer. The salt flats firm surface let the tires “slide” over it, rather than dig in. To prove this, Jenkins started to set speed and endurance records on the salt and slowly convinced the rest of racing world that Bonneville was indeed the “fastest place on earth”.
Today, teams of people from all over the world come with their cars and motorcycles and attempt to set land speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats. And in August of this year, one of those teams included a group from Fort Dodge, Iowa running a Green, 1967 Saab Sonett II, with a tiny three cylinder, 750cc two-stroke motor. That team was Davis, Verlyn Gregerson (another long time employee of my main business, Fort Dodge Transmission), and myself. As most of you know, Saab made a Sonett back in the fifties and sixties that used the running gear and chassis of the 93 and 96 model cars. Saab called this car their model 97. Saab shortened the 97 up, which made it only a two seater and then wrapped it in a skin of fiberglass to reduce weight. In 2009, I had read about a guy making a Saab 96 to run at Bonneville from the Chicago area, named Bertil Sollenskog and thought it was a unique way of racing, one that appealed to me. I also remembered seeing in old copies of “Saab Sounding”, Saabs newsletter/magazine of the sixties, stories of a guy named Dick Catron and his attempts, and success, he had at Bonneville with bullnose Saabs of the day.
I chose the Sonett because I have always liked the Sonett and it meant I could use a two-stroke motor, rather then the more modern four-stroke type, like all cars are made with today. I have driven two-stroke Saabs my entire life, and still own the very first two Saab two-strokes my family owned.
We started work this past May with a 1967 Sonett II that was literally rusted in half.
As we started to replace the rusty ½ of the Sonett with new metal, we sent pictures to officials at Bonneville to be sure we were doing all things correctly, even though we had a good idea of what we could and could not do based on our trip to Bonneville last October 2010 (to clarify rules for the class we would run in). We were quickly notified that our 1967 Sonett would not be allowed to run (for a class record) given it needed a minimum of 500 car production now, even though in October 2010 we were told that a Saab Sonett was considered to be a model 97 and all years were considered to be model 97’s, and therefore, all the same. It seems a new rule in 2011 was catching us by surprise. We never could get clear info on the rule but decided to play it safe and make our car a 1968 V4 instead of a 1967 II. The rules require all the exterior pieces be that of a 1968 car, as it came from the factory. So out went our flat two-stroke hood and in came the bulged V4 hood needed for 1968 status. Engine swapping is allowed from the manufacturer so we could still use our three cylinder two-stroke engine as we had planned with Sonett II Solex side draft carbs. All was good now and we proceeded to make our new car chassis whole again and accent it to 1968 Specs.
Needless to say it is a lot of work to get a car that is rusted in half welded all back together and ready in just three months. If not for my staff at Fort Dodge Transmission and the dedication of my team, none of this would have happened. Also, I had many other people help me, like David Baugher who is one the top two-stroke rebuilders in the country, as well as Bud Clark who knows more about Saab two-strokes and racing than anyone I know. I also had tech help from Peter Backstrom of the Swedish Museum, as well as the top two-strokes minds in Sweden from the boys at XP Extreme Power. Bruce Turk even sent me a two-stroke racing block to “inspect” and learn more vital info from for my engines.
Since my engine could only be only 750cc, I needed to “reduce” the size of the cylinders by 4mm each. This is a difficult task on a two-stroke engine with all the ports unless you are real good. I was fortunate to know of a first class engine rebuilder, Hubert Adams, who also spent many years working on Saabs and knows old Saabs inside and out. And he did a first class job on my block that allowed us to enter our car in the 750cc and down class. Also, our car would have never made to the salt in time with out the Herculean efforts of Marty Adams of Meyer Saab, the oldest Saab dealer west of the Mississippi River and his brother Chris Adams of Adams Racing Chassis. I gave them only a couple weeks to make a roll cage for my Sonett. Something that is very hard to do and still have a fat driver like me be able to enter and exit such as small vehicle!!
Yes is easy to forget all the people who help you on such a large project. Kind of like Bill Jacobson, of Wilmington Delaware never receiving the “Larry Stroker Williams” award at an SOC. Bill has been on this award selection committee since it started in 1998 after Larry’s death. Bill has done more for the Saab community, both vintage and modern Saabs, than anyone in the USA. Sometimes things get over looked, even when they are so obvious. I did the same thing when lettering my Saab Sonett to thanks all those who had helped me…I forgot Bertil! With out Bertil, my Bonneville dreams would be very different. Bertil and I talked on the phone constantly, and still do, sharing ideas and tips, trying to make our Saab’s go faster. Since I race a Saab model 97 and Bertil races a 96, we are in different classes and we do not compete directly against each other. In fact I supplied a transmission for Bertil in 2010, and then this year I rebuilt a special crankshaft for him as well as repaired his other crankshaft from overseas that failed in his 2010 land speed record attempt. He helped me with a lot of very technical info in getting my heads machine properly for the correct compression ratios as well as helping me balance my internal engine components. Yes many people help you in a large-scale project like this.
As our short time of 3 months dwindled down to just days, the project rapidly came together. I was gone for the final week of finishing the car, as I was away to Black Hills State University, in Spearfish, SD coaching football there. Before leaving I was able to use another Sonett II two- stroke I had as a “test car” for my motors (two of them) to verify horsepower on our dyno. This allowed me to drive some on the streets to get a real “seat of the pants feel” of their usable RPM range of power. I was also able to make one final dyno test the last day before leaving for the Black Hills with the real Bonneville race car and engine, albeit with no fiberglass body on yet! All ours tests showed we were making good power out of this little 750cc motor. This encouraged us to believe we had a good chance of setting a new land speed record on the salt.
August 11th my crew made the 9-hour trip west to pick me up at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, SD. We quickly showed the car off the football team. The team and staff loved the car, especially since I had accented it with Black Hills State colors, green and yellow, and had the “Yellow Jacket” mascot all over the car. We even added the school theme….”fear the sting” in lettering on the trunk deck. Which really seems appropriate when you hear the scream of the two-stroke motor, which does sound like a 100,000 angry yellow jackets swarming after you! After all had seeing (and heard) the car we loaded it back into our trailer and then off heading west for another 12 hours to the flats!
The 12-hour trip to Bonneville was uneventful except for a midnight herd of Mule deer that were standing in the middle of the highway as we popped over a deserted Wyoming hill. I was driving and there were about a dozen or more of these large bodied creatures staring at into my headlights. These are not Whitetail mind you, although hitting even one Whitetail would not have been good. These were their much larger bodied cousins and they were plastered (or soon to be!) all across the highway. As I hit the brakes on my One Ton Chevy a couple of the deer started to move so I aimed for the least populated section of the herd. When I did it was as if Moses was parting the Red Sea. The deer calmly moved a few feet each direction, as if they had rehearsed this scene before. I gently snaked my truck and trailer through the deer herd at about 55MPH without making any ground venison. Davis looked and me and said, “Wow…how did we miss all those deer? This is a good sign from above he said”. Sometimes things just “work”, and at that moment, they did.
Friday and Saturday August 12th & 13th
We arrived at the salt late Friday morning and setup “Camp Bonneville”. With all the local hotels filled up or asking $250 per night (with a 6-day minimum), we decided to camp just off the salt a bit at a place called the “bend”, along with thousands of other “Salter’s”. What an experience that was in and of itself! It was hot and windy there and it offered no relief from the over powering hours of Sun light, which is always beating down on you here. And with everything white around you, the Sun’s rays penetrate everywhere! (Men do not were lose shorts on the salt or you will burn your “Ball Bearings”!) On the first night, all tired and heat exhausted, we lay in our tent and laughed. We had no water, no shower and had to ride a bike a ½ mile to the “shitter”! As we laughed, the guys said something like “what could be worst then this!” We were soon to find out. The area we camped in is called the “Mud Flats” and after a Sunday night rain and windstorm ripped through the area (and our tent!) we found out first hand about how mud and water and salt all mix! What a mess it was, people stuck everywhere, tents and camping supplies half buried under a salty muddy mix of nasty! Add to that the nightly idiots that feel they needed to shoot off fireworks from 10pm till 3am! And then there were loud (but fun sounding) parties all around with drunks staggering into the wrong tents, made sleeping a lost art! We had one drunken idiot who had left his small utility trailer with a four-wheel drive quad on it 25 feet away from the rear corner of our tent. He showed up at 2am to get his trailer with his tow vehicle, a Geo Metro! He then proceeds to spend the next 20 minutes spinning his tires and tossing mud all around our tent. In the 20 minutes he did this, he was never more that 25 feet from our tent. He made an “L” shaped turn around our tent trying to get back to the road. His engine was rarely below 6,000rpm’s except to grind into reverse! As we lay in the tent again laughing, we could hear his engine was soon to be no more. In my transmission business, I love people who use their gear selector as a “tow truck”, rocking back and forth till their transmission fails. This special “user technique” help put all three of my kids through college! But this idiot had a manual transmission so his engine decided to fail first!
All that high speed spinning first overheated the engine, and the smell of anti-freeze burning on the hot exhaust pipe soon infiltrated our tent. Next was the awful smell of oil leaking onto a hot exhaust followed by what had to sound like small arms fire. An odd popping noise as the engine slowly destroyed itself! We laughed like hell as the Geo fell silent. All this idiots attempts to restart his engine sounded like a “Transformer” changing its shapes, metal grinding on metal. Soon it was totally quiet. I decide to get up and use my 4×4 truck to pull this guy away from our tent and to the main road. I figured if we left him here next to us, he would be on his cell phone dialing “1-800-more-idiots” for help. And for us that meant still less sleep! I slid to his car through the muddy salty mixture. As I he opened his door I expected to see a young, dumb, full of….well something kid! Instead this nice looking old guy my age was sitting there with a perfectly peaceful look on his face. He smiled, and said, “Hi there, I think I’m stuck”. I said, “No shit Sherlock….and you blew up you’re F’ing motor too you dumb ass!” I got a rope out of my truck and pulled him the ½ mile to the main road. I went back to our tent and then again we all laughed….what the F could happen next! Okay, now that I am really not talking about racing let’s get back to racing on the salt!
We spent the first two days splitting our time between putting our car through the difficult safety tech inspection area, and setting up the pit area. (And our lovely camp site.) Between getting the car 100% done for the inspectors and going though “Rookie Orientation” we wasted two days, Friday and Saturday, finally getting the car on the salt Sunday afternoon.
Sunday August 14th
We ran twice Sunday afternoon and only achieved speeds of a little over 95MPH. A far cry from the 115MPH we ran on our dyno back in Iowa. Ok, this was not going to be so easy after all! This higher altitude, drier air and stickier salt surface really do steal power. I ran into Tom Kreger who I had met in October 2010 with his record running 1958 Saab 93b, fitted with a Yamaha motorcycle engine. He was very happy to see our green Sonett on the salt and said he hoped to have his car done to run in October during the World Speed Finals here at Bonneville.
Our team did some talking, some playing and dialing in with our engine and chassis the rest of Sunday afternoon. We decided to go back to our “camp” about 7pm that night and retry in the morning to over take the class record of 96.683MPH. As we were leaving the slat, we met the record holder in our class, a great guy named Mark Brinker from Houston, Texas. He was running a 1959 Deutsch Bonnet with a 750cc, 2 cylinders, 4-stroke motor. He and his crew were delightful to meet and told us they were glad to finally have some stiffer competition in their class. He also informed us that he had ran over 98MPH today which thereby qualified him to attempt to set a new land speed record
Monday morning. The way land speed records work at Bonneville is you make a “down run” with your car, and if your run exceeds the current class record, you then must “impound” your car till the next day. Then at 7AM
you attempt a “backup run” or “record run” on the same course. If the average speed of the two runs exceeds the current record, you then are the new Land Speed Record holder in that class. Brinker and his crew felt confident there car would set a new record. (Which he did the next morning at 96.886MPH)
Monday August 15th
As soon as we arrived Monday morning we headed out to the starting area and the car ran hard and fast. The modifications we had made paid off. We hit 100.458MPH on our first run of the day and landed in impound! Just were you wanted to be. Once in impound you have 4 hours to make adjustments to your car. We talked about what changes to make in our 4 hour window and decided to not make any changes to the car, but instead play it safe and run a sound “record run” to make history and keep it simple doing so. In fact that was my whole goal the entire year since Bertil had sparked the dream in me. Keep it simple. Do what you know works. Run with known good reliable parts. Having driven two stroke Saabs all over North America, I felt I knew what it takes to keep a Saab stroker alive. Keep it simple. After all, Dick Catron had set a record with a two-stroke engine (with a larger engine running in the 1,300cc and down class) way back in 1964! If Catron could do it in 1964, than why could we not do it today in 2011? K.I.S.S. was the theme was by our team on every decision we made.
Tuesday August 16th
So with only new spark plugs and a wrench on every bolt to test for tightness, we towed the car to the starting line at 7am on Tuesday and ran a conservative speed of 97.479MPH for our “backup/record run” which gave us a new Bonneville Land Speed Record of 98.968MPH. This was also the first time since 1964, that a Saab two-stroke had achieved such a feat!
This record run did have some excitement for me as the driver. In my cockpit I have only essential gauges and lights. One of them was an AFR gauge, which measures your “air to fuel ratio”. Four stroke motors like to run a 14 to 1 ratio, which means for every 14 parts of air molecules there is 1 part of fuel molecule. But in two-strokes, the ratios vary more. Some research I did said an 11 to 1 ratio was best while others say closer to 12.5 to 1 ratio is ideal. Having the ratio correct will help you achieve maximum power, plus it helps keep your engine alive! Go too lean and you will burn a piston, whereas too rich means less power. It is a lot like cooking. Too much heat get stuff done real fast but you might burn something, were as too little heat is just too darn slow! On my run “down” on Monday the ratio was about 14.5 to 1, which was a little on the lean side but yet a “little mean” too so it ran faster. But now with a different weather system in place the following morning, it meant our engine would be running leaner. With no way to test the engine since we were in impound, you run with the girl that brought you here! As soon as I got a half-mile or so down the track it became apparent to me that the car was running real lean….too lean. It was running in the 20 to 1 area, which meant I could melt a piston at anytime. I had already played this scenario out in my head and knew what I had to do…pull out the choke cable and refresh the engine with a cool charge of raw gas. Doing this causes your speed to drop instantly, but my AFR also dropped too, down to 16 to 1 range. I had to pull the choke cable out very 15 seconds or so the keep the AFR in line and the engine alive. The last thing you want to do is blow your motor on your record run! All of our work would have been lost for the season had that happened. Yes I had a spare motor, but it was for a larger class (940cc) with a speed I knew was beyond our reach. I had brought it along for playing with only and to see how fast I could make the Sonett body go with a larger engine. My little trick worked and the record run made it into the Bonneville history books forever!
Yes we had done it! A Bonneville land speed record! Ok great, but now it was time to play! I gave Davis and Gregerson the rest of the morning off because they needed time to enjoy the total feel of Speed Week and the 500 plus teams there from all over the world. Also, they had worked and been fed like slaves up to that point. I instantly headed off to the pits and installed a new head we had made that would raise our compression ratio from 10/1 to 15/1. I had read an article written about Dick Catron from back in 1964 where Saab USA of New Haven, made Catron a special engine. It seems Catron was having trouble getting his car to run fast enough for the land speed record, so Saab USA stepped in, made this special “15/1 compression ratio head and motor” and had it air freighted to Catron to run on the final day of competition, where at last, he set a new land speed record with his Saab!
Well no help from Saab here, but I knew It might take a higher compression head to set a record. Since I was using the K.I.S.S. method, it prevented me from trying this experimental head on the only 750cc motor I had. As Bud Clark had told me earlier, “with a 15/1 ratio head, it’s like pulling the pin on a hand grenade…it’s only time till it will explode!” Last thing I wanted was to blow an engine before I set a record. I felt we had enough engine the way it was to beat the old record, which we did, and then play. Armed with a new head with lots of compression, we set off Tuesday afternoon to exceed our old/new record…which we did easily, running 101.653MPH on our “down run”. Back we went to impound and more playing. Yes we were lucky, but we had also done our homework and had a plan. Many phone calls and tips are what we were using to break speed records.
Back in impound we brain stormed and I took Davis’s and Gregerson’s advice on modifications we would make for the next day’s runs. Davis has been around auto racing most of his life and Gregerson is a Champion Motor Cross rider himself, both with a lifetime of experience to draw from. We made more changes and waited till morning.
Wednesday August 17th
On Wednesday morning at 7AM we ran a smoking hot 109.574MPH for our “back up/record” run. With that run we had an average for our two runs of 105.613MPH to blow away our record from the day before. Ok, let’s keep racing! We headed straight out, after the Bonneville Officials confirmed our newest record. We ran a down time of 108.671MPH, which again exceed our new record of the morning of 105.613mph. Back to impound! We felt pretty sure we could run faster in the AM but I opted to just “bump” my record a bit and that way we would spend the last day of racing playing with our 940cc motor. By this time the motel situation had gotten better in Wendover, NV so we booked two hotels rooms and packed up our salty muddy mess at our a camp site and settled into an air conditioned rooms with hot showers! (And no fireworks!) Boy did that feel good for our team!
Thursday August 18th
The next morning, Thursday, we got some excellent pictures of the Saab in the beautiful salt flat Sunrise and headed to the starting line. We ran slower than our down run, only 106.215mph, but it still bumped our average speeds to 107.443MPH for ANOTHER and final Bonneville Land Speed Record.
As for my team, and me we spent the rest of the day installing the 940cc motor and playing with it. We ran out of time and had to settle for a maximum speed on the salt of 112.578MPH with a TWO-STROKE. Odd as this sounds the Saab Gods must have been smiling on us this trip. We had set all 3 records with our 750cc motor without any mechanical issues. Everything just flat worked. That all ended as soon as we installed the larger 940cc engine. After installing the larger engine I went to start it up and it ran perfect for about 10 seconds and then died. A quick check showed the pointless ignition system had died. (The only modern thing I had out on the Sonett) That was the first time I have had a Pertronix unit fail on any of my cars. Next, I made a bonehead rookie mistake by installing the distributor off 1/3 of a turn so all the cylinders were off by 120 degrees. I can’t remember the last time I did that! Next we noticed the ignition coil started leaking large amounts of oil from it! I have never had that happen before either. We swapped out the coil quick and then up to the starting line we went and waited. After a half-hour or so the Bonneville officials came by and said they were closing the course so we needed to move to another line. Which meant another one hour of waiting in line in the hot Sun! Finally we were within a few cars from the starting line. It was time for me to suit up and fire up the engine…but I could not get any power to my instrument panel. Our drivers, main power kill switch, had gone bad! Everything that had failed was BRAND NEW. What are the odds all this stuff could work perfect for 4 days, then all fail within hours of each other! We knew it was time to take our records and leave the salt. We packed up and headed east about 7PM Thursday night.
Once back to the Black Hills and football season, I received a call from my daughter saying that some guy claming he was with “Car and Driver” magazine had been trying to get in touch with me. They were doing a piece on Bud Clark and wanted to mention my new record in the story. Needless to say I was glad to call and give them all the info I had. The November 2011 issue of “Car and Driver” just hit the stands as I am writing this article and sure enough, on page 26, there is a two-line piece called “The World’s Fastest Two-Stroke Saab”.
There you have it…a Saab two-stroke breaking old Saab stroker records and setting new Land Speed Records at Bonneville International Raceway!
Looking back I really wanted to go in October to run the car rather than August. It just worked better for me. I would not miss as much football and we would have not had to rush to get the car done. The one thing that helped me let things progress towards the August deadline was the expected arrival of our first Grand baby due October 3, which was the same day we needed to be in Bonneville for an October run. But really it was Davis that insisted we get the car ready now for August and literally willed the car done those last few weeks in Fort Dodge to make the August races. I guess Davis knew or sensed something I did not. The 2011 October World Speed Finals would get rained out. All of those who had prepared the entire year and then made the long journey to Bonneville this past October 2011 had their dreams crushed. Two days of wind and wet weather finally resulted in the canceling of all the events on Thursday October 6th, and made all who came in October wish they had not. One of those very disappointed participants included Tom Kreger with his 1958 Yamaha powered Saab 93b.
I also heard the SOC11 attendees in New Jersey got a quick update at the Saturday night banquet of the new records at Bonneville. Thanks to the SOC committee and Annette Adams for announcing this at the dinner. I wish I could have made the SOC event, but Bonneville could not wait!
On a final note, lots of people came up to me at Bonneville to say they loved our green Saab Sonett, and Saab as a company. Everyone wished Saab well and hoped the brand could survive. People always ask me which is the “Best Saab Ever Made”? My answer is always the same, “The last one off the assembly line!” Today, as back in 1964 and 1967, Saab makes a great car. Go out and buy one and do what they are meant to do, BE DRIVEN!”
A big “THANK YOU” to all who support our team in prayer and in Saab spirit!
Safe Saab’in, Tom Donney